Fact or Fiction: The Scandal of Lord Byron
by Linore Rose Burkard
The idea persists since the early 19th century that Lord Byron, the famed romantic poet of such pieces as “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” and “She Walks in Beauty,” had an incestuous relationship with his half sister, the Hon. Augusta Byron Leigh.
Note: What makes a woman "The Honourable"? She must be the daughter of a baron. It is a courtesy title*, as baron's daughters are actually commoners. [*ie., not a true title]
In his day Byron was notorious for being a very talented bad boy, so it is easy to understand why people were ready and willing to believe in the affair. But what evidence is there? Only what today would be called circumstantial.
|A young George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)|
This was considered suspicious because Byron had a character named Medora in a poem published in 1814. Also, Byron wrote a letter on the 25th of April, 1814 saying, "and it is Not an Ape." Almost every editor says this was a reference to a belief that a child of incest would be deformed or look like an ape. Yet there is no evidence of such a belief having been in existence at that time.
Medora's father was satisfied that the child was his. Yet it is on such flimsy evidence that Byron is indicted as having had an incestuous affair with his sister. Flimsy evidence that makes the brooding, handsome poet, already infamous for notorious affairs and questionable deeds, appear even darker.
What of His Wife?
|Anne Isabella Byron, Baroness Byron|
Byron's brief marriage (1815) was an unlikely match at the outset, and it was no secret he sought the union out of financial necessity. He was not easy to live with, and his behavior worsened as his monetary woes increased. It was he who suggested Lady Byron take their child, Ada, to her parents' home while he sorted out the financial mess he was in. His wife, who had already begun cataloging his moods and speech (suspicious that he was becoming deranged) agreed to go and at first kept up an affectionate correspondence. Shortly after the separation began, however, she became convinced that Byron's behavior was not a result of mental illness--the doctors' opinions were unanimous in that regard--and her tone changed. She sought a legal separation, and, ultimately, divorce.
This cast a dark shadow upon the poet, for Lady Byron, the former Miss Milbanke, was a known specimen of gentle propriety. What awful thing had Byron done to estrange her?
Another female with a grudge against Byron was the emotionally unstable Lady Caroline Lamb. Byron did have an affair with Caroline before his marriage--it was passionate but brief. He grew tired of her and broke it off. She never resigned herself to his loss, and it is alleged that she authored the rumor.
Augusta herself presents a problem for those who believe the affair took place because all descriptions of Augusta that we have show a religious woman who was concerned about her brother's rackety ways as an older sister would be. Indeed, even Lady Byron loved Augusta--although she abandoned her after the divorce. (Was this because she'd become convinced of the affair?)
The Plot Thickens
After Byron's death, any credence that had been given to the rumor was drowned among a litany of praise for the "noble" poet. He had died young (at only 36) after being weakened while fighting in the cause of freedom (Greece's civil war). In 1869, however, Harriet Beecher Stowe (of Uncle Tom's Cabin fame) wrote an article called, "The True Story of Lady Byron’s Life." This added a new iron to the fire of controversy that remains to this day.
|Harriet Beecher Stowe|
The article caused such a storm that the magazine went bankrupt. Mrs. Stowe then wrote a book, Lady Byron Vindicated,** to justify herself and Lady Byron. It was written, also, in protest to biographies that had cast a favorable light upon the poet.
But disbelief persisted. Why, if the account were true, had it not been published earlier, critics asked. Stowe's response was that her ladyship had given the information to her in confidence, asking that it be suppressed until after her death. Then, the War of the Southern Rebellion made it impossible to publish the article earlier. (Lady Byron died in 1860.)
Society was split. Some were scandalized, and others refused to believe the allegations. Lord Lovelace, Lady Byron’s grandson, took his grandmother’s side. But many critics and others took the side of Byron.
A major difficulty was that everyone intimately involved was dead by this time. Lord Byron had died earliest, in 1824; Augusta in 1851, and Lady Byron in 1860.
An argument of the believers was to say that proof of the allegation was not needed because the charges, made by the saintly Lady Byron, must be true. She would never have invented such a monstrous lie. Others, however, suspected precisely the reverse: that such charges coming from an alienated, estranged wife must be suspect.
|Lord Byron, by Richard Westall|
Weighing the Evidence:
We can't know when Augusta got pregnant--whether before her visit to her half brother or not. Unless someone can find evidence of this on record, say, from a physician of the day, then it is an unknown and can always be speculated upon.
Then, Byron wrote to Lady Melbourne on the 8th of April in 1814 to say he had just come from visiting his sister and the baby; this was two weeks before the aforementioned letter--and he was more concerned with his indigestion than anything else. Another letter, written April 25, starts off discussing Lady Caroline Lamb. Augusta and the baby are not mentioned at all.
While Medora was the name of a character in Byron’s poem, it was also the name of a race horse with connections to Augusta’s family that won a big race in 1814.
Personally, what seems to speak out against Byron for me is that Lady Byron was sincerely religious, and devout people don't go about inventing rumors. It's conceivable that she was sincerely mistaken regarding the incest, but by all accounts she absolutely believed it occurred.
Finally, it doesn't speak well for the poet that he left England shortly after the dissolution of his marriage (never, alas, to return). Was he afraid of being found out and publicly humiliated?
On the other hand, Bryon himself was known to take a morbid delight in being accused of wrongdoings, and so might have inadvertently taken "credit" for the affair to his wife--not suspecting she would believe him. However, when he refused to give her a legal separation and pleaded ignorance as to why she left him, her lawyers offered to take the matter to trial where they would furnish "evidence" against him. He declined to go that route, and instead granted the divorce.
In the end, it is a matter of "he said, she said." And, whom shall we believe?
Lady Shelley’s comments will be the last word here. She was a friend of both Byron and Augusta. She wrote,
“[Augusta’s] manner towards him is decidedly maternal; it is as though she were reproving a thoughtless child. .....VERDICT: True or False? You decide! Byron’s incestuous affair with Augusta was (in my opinion) quite possible, but the evidence available makes it technically FALSE. What do you think? Leave a comment and let us know.
She is extremely good and I like her very much.” (Later) “The accusation which has lately been brought against Mrs. Leigh seems, to me, who knew her well, as the height of absurdity. She was what I should call a religious woman; and her feeling for Byron was that of an elder sister towards a wayward child."
This article was adapted from my PDF, "Myths and Mysteries of the Regency." Earlier, I was convinced that the incest was a mere rumor. After doing more reading, I'm not quite so sure. Special thanks to Nancy Mayer for providing information used here. Ms. Mayer is a Regency research expert who shares her knowledge at http://www.susannaives.com/nancyregencyresearcher/
** You can read Stowe's book, Lady Byron Vindicated, free online, if you wish. Warning: it is tediously long. In the end, you are convinced of two things: One--Lady Byron was sure of the incest, and Two-- Harriet Beecher Stowe was sure of Lady Byron.
Linore Rose Burkard is best known for historical regency novels with Harvest House Publishers, including Before the Season Ends, the award-winning The House in Grosvenor Square, and, The Country House Courtship. As a writer noted for meticulous research as well as bringing people to life on the page, Linore’s books delight fans of historical romance with “Heyeresque” humor and Austen-like manners. Linore teaches workshops for writers with Greater Harvest Workshops in Ohio, is a homeschooling mother of five, and has recently finished a YA novel. Keep up with Linore by subscribing to her free newsletter atLinore@LinoreBurkard.com